LWB Community

Foster Care in Uganda

I’m continuing our series on the 2019 status of LWB foster care, focusing today on Uganda. Just as I mentioned in my blog about Cambodia, the orphanage business in Uganda is unfortunately booming as well.  Some estimates state that the number of children growing up in orphanages in Uganda has reached over 50,000, despite the vast majority of those children not being orphans at all. While it’s difficult to know exact numbers, those of us working in the field believe at least 80% of children in Ugandan orphanages have known relatives.

Thankfully, there’s a growing movement among the government and many charities to move as many children as possible out of institutions and into family care. LWB was excited to begin foster care in Uganda in early 2018, and while the program is still small in numbers, it’s huge in impact for the children we’ve transitioned.

If you research orphan work in Uganda, you’ll quickly see that there are a wide range of opinions on whether orphanages there should even exist. Some argue that all orphanages need to be closed as quickly as possible, while others would point to newspaper pages such as the one below (which show the reality of child abandonment) and say that there have to be orphanages in order for the police to have an immediate shelter for child placement.

While I’m very thankful that the deinstitutionalization of children is a goal that most of the world is now intently working towards, the current reality in Uganda is that there are still enormous gaps between a child being abandoned and the possibility of moving them quickly into home-based care.  For most children, local police find it easiest to simply take them to an orphanage.

When LWB began working in Uganda, we formed a partnership with a local NGO run by native Ugandans Ken and Cathy Nganda. They had set up the Tender Hearts Baby Home after seeing a critical need for a safe place for children abandoned in their community. The Tender Hearts Baby Home quickly grew to almost 50 children, and they knew their facility had more than reached capacity.

We discussed with Ken and Cathy the possibility of transitioning their baby home to the LWB Healing Homes model, where children abandoned with health issues, malnourishment, or severe neglect could be lovingly rehabilitated, and subsequently either reunite with their birth families or move into foster care.  We’ve worked together to make that goal a reality, and in the last 15 months we’ve helped 21 of the children be reunified with birth families and placed 7 children into foster care. This has reduced the number of children in the orphanage by 50%, which is definitely something to celebrate.

I’ll be the first to admit, however, that establishing foster care hasn’t been an easy process, for many different reasons.  

The first important thing to know is that Uganda, a country of 42 million people, has one of the youngest populations in the world. Half of its residents are under the age of 15.

In addition, families in Uganda are large. It’s very common for a woman to have 5 to 8 biological children of her own, and then due to poverty and mortality issues, take in children from extended family as well.  With almost every Ugandan family already feeling the strain of supporting extended kin, the idea of caring for a complete stranger’s child can be a difficult one to promote.

Ken and Cathy have worked patiently to educate the local community, through meetings at village centers and churches, about the importance of family-based care for orphaned children. Slowly but surely, more foster families are being found.

The financial complexities of arranging foster care in Uganda must be considered as well.  When we partner with local community leaders to do projects, one of the first things we discuss is, “What is culturally appropriate?”  In China or America, for example, it’s an accepted practice for foster parents to receive a monthly cash stipend. In Uganda, however, as I mentioned above, families feel a deep obligation to care for any relatives in need, and so they frequently take in children from aunts, or cousins, or siblings. Coming in as a charity and directly giving cash to care for children-in-need could actually be disruptive to a region that believes helping is just the right thing to do.

Many discussions took place on what would be socially appropriate so that families with a heart for helping orphaned children, who were already stretched financially with their current obligations, could accept a foster child into their home. We decided that rather than a monthly salary, we could instead provide support in the form of school fees, clothing, or additional food for the children. So far, this has worked very successfully.

However, it also brings up questions about how much support is fair. For example, is it right for LWB to provide school fees for a foster child, if a foster mom’s own children don’t have the financial resources to go to school? Should all of the children in the family then receive educational support? And most people’s immediate answer would be, “Yes…every child needs to go to school,” but that of course increases the costs of the program. I still haven’t found that proverbial money tree, so putting together a foster care budget for Uganda has proven to be quite different than other locations.

We had another situation with an absolutely wonderful foster mom whose simple house finally gave out and collapsed on one side. The child adores this family, so to allow him to remain in a safe placement, should LWB then provide physical repairs for the home? These are new questions we haven’t faced in our China program before, and we’re still adapting our policies to best fit the unique issues of the area.

Another challenge involves complexities with government procedures, as Uganda has a very structured system for child welfare which includes police, probation officers, social workers, courts, and judges. And we absolutely respect the law, but the administrative steps and paperwork which must be coordinated to place a child in family-based care often move extremely slowly. With many police and social workers feeling overworked and overextended, it’s often difficult to know who has jurisdiction in agreeing a child can be moved to foster care. Thankfully, the Ugandan government introduced their National Framework for Alternative Care in 2012 and has been working diligently to implement national guidelines. For now, however, there are still a lot of unknowns to navigate.

While the movement to quickly shut down every orphanage can be understandable, it’s critical that the steps taken are done thoughtfully and carefully. We’ve seen orphanages which have been aggressively shut down, where the children were then housed in poorly staffed boarding schools, crowded hospitals, or placed back into situations where domestic abuse or addiction put them at risk for further abandonment and neglect. That’s not the outcome anyone wants, of course.

We’ve celebrated every child we’ve helped reunify SAFELY with family, and we’ve loved seeing the children moved to our foster care program bloom once they have committed parents. But we also have to realize that ensuring good care for at-risk children, whether through reintegration or foster care, requires a lot of hard work. It takes significant time and financial resources to provide parent counseling and support, along with regular monitoring and oversight. It’s absolutely worth the effort though, when you visit a child who has found a loving family.

I think it’s also important to mention that for some children in orphanages, there are sadly few options for family-based care.  Children with severe special needs, such as beautiful Matthew at the Tender Hearts home, are in “institutional limbo.” Their families refuse to care for them, but few others will as well. Many parents feel incapable of meeting a child’s physical and emotional needs when they are born with disabilities, as accessibility to services, especially in the rural regions, is difficult. Even the ability to push a child in a wheelchair can prove challenging due to the landscape. In addition, the enormous stigma surrounding children born with birth defects remains.

Since finding great foster families for “healthy” children in Uganda is proving to be a challenge, it’s even more difficult to find parents open to fostering those with more moderate to complex needs.  We were especially thrilled that we were able to place a beautiful little girl with cerebral palsy into family care. While her special need might keep her from running or speaking clearly, Julia is now going to school for the first time in her life and loves playing with her foster sisters. We’ve always embraced the philosophy of “one child at a time,” and so we celebrate the placement of Julia into home-based care.

It’s all very exciting, and our local partners are leading the efforts to move children into families after seeing how much they flourish with their own mom and dad. It only happens with your support, so I send my deepest thanks.

In June, I’ll be heading to India, where just like Uganda, the government is taking steps to establish foster care for orphaned and abandoned children. We’ve been in discussions for almost two years on how to help local organizations move towards community-based care, and finally I get to go in person to meet some of the leaders on the ground.  I hope in the not-too-distant future I can add to this foster care series, with the news that even more children have found the blessing of family. Please stay tuned!

~Amy Eldridge, Chief Executive Officer

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